Robin Oakley

The glorious return of the Grand National crowd

The skill, bravery, razzmatazz and fairy-tale ending of this wonderful race could be enjoyed by the punters again after the three-year lull

The glorious return of the Grand National crowd
Perfect finish: Sam Waley-Cohen and Noble Yeats winning this year’s Grand National [Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images]
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How wonderful after three years to have the crowds back to enjoy the glorious concoction of skill, bravery, razzmatazz and tear-jerking emotion Aintree’s Grand National meeting always provides. Having begun my working life on the Liverpool Daily Post in the days when developers’ greed nearly destroyed this national treasure, I relish my annual pilgrimage. Competition is almost as hot as at the Cheltenham Festival but somehow it comes without the angst. ‘You feel like it’s a party,’ said trainer Dan Skelton. ‘You are part of a carnival. I don’t drink but those who do tell me that they do that well here too.’ ‘Cheltenham is about pressure,’ said Grand National-winning trainer Gordon Elliott. ‘Aintree is more relaxed.’

Certainly Ladies Day at Aintree is like nowhere else in its uninhibited go-for-it glorification of the female form, however that form may originally have been endowed by nature. The buzz starts early with the clanking collection of the beer barrels emptied the day before, an army of wheelie bins advancing across the concourse like so many mini-Tardises – a reminder of the sheer scale of organisation required. At Aintree there is an immediacy of contact unthinkable in Gloucestershire: quietly combing my Racing Post for form clues I might have missed I was surrounded last Friday by a breakaway platoon from a roving she-pack of prosecco--bearing selfie-takers. Cassie and Charlotte demanded winners and I suggested a fiver each on Langer Dan and Jonbon. ‘A fiver!’ scoffed Cassie. ‘I was thinking more like 30 pounds.’ Fortunately both won, though my third shot, the appropriately named Bravemansgame, did not.

As the world now knows this year’s National story came in the shape of amateur jockey Sam Waley-Cohen, who had revealed, rising 40, that this National ride would be his last. Some sportsmen seize gratefully on a late career success to announce a spur of the moment retirement on a happy note. Having announced he was going anyway, Waley-Cohen then delivered a fairy story no fiction-writer could have got away with. Seven--year-old novices don’t win Grand Nationals but, given an impeccable ride by Sam, this one did, triumphing on merit at 50-1. Only then did we all remember that Sam had a better record over the National obstacles than any professional, with six previous victories. He has been an amateur only in the sense that he has not taken money for his rides and his career highlights include a Gold Cup, two King Georges and innumerable top handicaps, all in his father Robert’s gold and brown silks. But it is at Aintree that Sam has always been special. As his hoarse and tearful father emotionally proclaimed: ‘He’s extraordinary over these fences. If you could bottle it you would.’

Sam noted that the great thing about the racing life, whether in point-to-points or at Aintree, is that it is so often a family affair and it wasn’t just the Waley-Cohens who had brought the whole clan. After he had won the novice hurdle, jockey Davy Russell introduced me to his son Finn and daughter Lily, whom he took up to the prize rostrum with him. I met trainer Anthony Honeyball’s young son Harry the same way after his Sam Brown had won the Betway Chase. ‘He wants to be a trainer: I’ve suggested golf,’ said his father. J.P. McManus, racing’s most generous and popular benefactor, who was rightly inducted into Aintree’s Hall of Fame, brought more children and grandchildren with him than I could count. In that long grey raincoat, the soft-spoken J.P. seems to be attempting to make himself look the most anonymous man on the racecourse but I’m afraid he will never bring it off.

Amid all the joy and tears, though, it was a different moment I will always remember. As Scottish trainer Lucinda Russell was charming the media with her response to Ahoy Senor’s demolition job in seeing off Bravemansgame and L’Homme Presse in the Mildmay Novices’ Chase, I went for a word with her partner and assistant trainer, former champion jockey Peter Scudamore. I didn’t thrust a microphone in his face: I had come just for a quiet word between two jump racing enthusiasts over the emergence of one of those horses who makes us all feel special. What I encountered was a two-minute burst of pent-up energy and emotion as Scu declared what magic it was to be living the life that he and Lucinda and all their staff were living, what pleasure was given by the wonderful animals around which their lives were centred and what a privilege it was to be associated with an equine athlete like Ahoy Senor.

When I remarked what an engine Ahoy Senor must have, Scu put his hand on his heart and declared simply: ‘Yes – but it’s what’s in here that really matters.’ Many outside the world of racing wrongly imagine it as humans exploiting animals. Scu’s eloquent, instinctive cri de coeur was the most complete and compelling counter-argument they could ever hear. If only that could be bottled too.